Editor’s Note: John Avlon is a senior political analyst at CNN. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his own. View more opinion on CNN.
Fact checks are not censorship. But that’s what President Donald Trump is claiming in his new assault on social media platforms: an over-reaching executive order targeting social media companies, signed shortly after Twitter applied fact checks to two of Trump’s tweets.
He’s become an easily triggered orange snowflake of a man, desperate in his attempts to distract us from over 100,000 coronavirus deaths by ratcheting up his lies on Twitter.
This week, Twitter took a long overdue step toward sanity by adding a fact check to his repeated baseless claims about voter fraud.
This is a modest thing to flag against the backdrop of Trump repeating false suggestions that a cable news host committed murder, but we’ll take it as a sign of progress.
But the president’s comments about mail-in voting are especially insidious because they’re another attempt to reduce confidence in the integrity of our elections. He’s said that “voting by mail is wrought with fraud and abuse.”
No, it’s not.
In fact, according to figures cited by the Carnegie Endowment, almost a quarter of all ballots cast in 2016 were via absentee and currently five states have all-vote-by-mail – Utah, Colorado, Oregon, Hawaii and Washington.
Get this: In the 20 years that Oregon has done mail-in ballots, it’s had a grand total of 12 proven cases of voter fraud out of 100 million ballots cast.
In the 2018 election, the only case of demonstrated ballot fraud came from a North Carolina GOP campaign. And this week, the DOJ charged a West Virginia mailman with attempted election fraud for allegedly altering mail-in ballot requests from Democrat to Republican.
But let’s get real – the reason Trump opposes mail-in ballots is because he believes it will benefit Democrats. He’s said so himself, telling Fox & Friends that “you’d never have a Republican elected in this country again.”
That’s not true – especially now.
Republican Mike Garcia just won a congressional special election in California, boosted by mail-in votes.
More to the point, during an election in a pandemic, it stands to reason that those most likely to request vote-by-mail will be the elderly. Generally they’re more likely to vote Republican, as they did in 2016 – though there are signs Joe Biden could be very competitive with that cohort.
Obviously, good people can disagree in a democracy, but that doesn’t mean that there’s moral equivalence between people who buy into a lie for partisan reasons and people who try to calmly state the facts.
It’s good to see Twitter finally tagging the President’s tweets with fact checks. But we’ve got a long way to go where social media is concerned, especially given the Wall Street Journal’s report showing that Facebook privately recognizes its algorithms exacerbate polarization – finding that “64% of all extremist group joins are due to our recommendation tools” - but chose to essentially shelve the internal report. Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg told CNBC, “I don’t think Facebook or internet platforms in general should be arbiters of truth.”
Now Trump is crying bias and playing the victim, backing up his grievance with an executive order that directs federal regulators to crack down on social media companies and possibly remove their legal shield against liability for statements made on their platforms. Trump also suggested he’d shut down Twitter if he could. Not exactly a free-market response but conservatives once again appear willing to abandon principle out of fealty to this president.
There are five months until the presidential election. It is a critical time for our country. The president is apparently incapable of behaving responsibly. That means we all need to hold ourselves to a higher standard than Trump when it comes to fearlessly stating the facts and not being intimidated by trolls or bots who try to excuse anything he does.
Because the President’s not actually at war with journalism or social media platforms. He’s at war with reality. He’s at war with facts. He’s at war with the truth.